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Exhibition at Museum of Fine Arts, Boston to Unlock the Secrets of Tomb 10A: Egypt 2000 BC

They survived two fires, the onslaught of robbers, and the effects of four thousand years underground. Now, these masterworks from an Egyptian tomb of the Middle Kingdom (2040–1640 BC) will be on view in a special exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), from October 18, 2009, through May 16, 2010. The Secrets of Tomb 10A: Egypt 2000 BC showcases funerary objects discovered in Deir el-Bersha, a necropolis in central Egypt, by the joint Harvard University-Museum of Fine Arts Expedition in 1915. It includes the famous painted “Bersha coffin,” the mummified head of one of the tomb’s two occupants, and hundreds of items deemed necessary for a comfortable afterlife in ancient Egypt. This find represents the largest Middle Kingdom burial assemblage ever discovered and sheds light on the grand lifestyle enjoyed by local governor and priest Djehutynakht and his wife, Lady Djehutynakht. The conservation and reconstruction of many of the items—damaged by grave robbers in antiquity—have taken almost a century to complete. For the first time since they were placed in the tomb, the assemblage will be displayed in its entirety.

coffin of Djehutynakht
Front side panel of outer coffin of Djehutynakht. Egyptian, Middle Kingdom, late Dynasty 11 – early Dynasty 12, 2010–1961 B.C. Cedar. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Harvard University—Boston Museum of Fine Arts Expedition Photo: © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Secrets of Tomb 10A examines the mysteries surrounding the Djehutynakhts: their lifestyle, the fate of their possessions after they were buried, and whether the mummified head is male or female. It also offers an engaging introduction to evolving funerary practices in Egypt from the 11th through 13th dynasties and provides insights into daily life of the high officials of the time. Featured are more than 250 objects, many of which have never before been on view. These include four painted coffins, cult objects, vessels for food and drink, furniture, jewelry, walking sticks, and sealed beer jars (one of which will be opened and examined), as well as the largest known collection of wooden models from the Middle Kingdom representing—in miniature form—a range of activities and items that would have been found on the couple’s estate.

“This exploration of ancient Egypt provides a window into one of the most fascinating civilizations in history,” said Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director of the MFA. “The artistic and historical treasures found in Tomb 10A bring to life the world of 2000 BC—a time of glorious artistic achievements. By revealing what the Djehutynakhts considered most important for their journey to the afterlife, the exhibition offers a better understanding of the Middle Kingdom, the least known of Egypt’s major eras.”

Objects throughout the gallery highlight the historical significance of the Middle Kingdom, a period when the relationship between the pharaoh and his provincial governors characterized the politics of the day. Other key themes of the exhibition include an exploration of the nature and meaning of the grave goods discovered in the Djehutynakhts’ tomb, the evolving interest in the Deir el-Bersha tombs over the course of almost two centuries, and a comparative look at other funerary practices of Dynasties 12 and 13 (1991–1642 BC). Also on view is a section devoted to the expedition that unearthed the treasures of Tomb 10A and more recent discoveries made at Deir el-Bersha.

Famous “Bersha Coffin”
The beautifully crafted cedar outer coffin of Governor Djehutynakht, an unparalleled masterpiece of Middle Kingdom painting resplendent with accomplished brushwork and brilliant colors, figures prominently in The Secrets of Tomb 10A. Measuring 96 x 52 x 45 inches, it is disassembled in the exhibition to show the exquisite painting on the inside of its panels, so placed for the governor’s exclusive viewing. Rich in detail and symbolism, many of the painted images depict food, drink, clothing, weapons, and other provisions for the afterlife. There are many items of religious significance, including an intricately decorated false door through which Djehutynakht’s ka, or life force, could easily pass between the worlds of the living and the dead. The governor can be seen sitting in front of this door, inhaling incense offered by his son and surrounded by other objects useful for his new existence. Many of the goods found in the tomb replicate those depicted on the coffin. Above the scene are two rows of large, painted hieroglyphs consisting of a funerary prayer requesting offerings from the king and the god Osiris. Incised cursive hieroglyphs record the Coffin Texts, a collection of funerary rituals and spells that are laid out in vertical columns. Nearly 200 individual spells are included so that they may protect and guide Governor Djehutynakht in his journey to the afterlife. In its entirety, the coffin’s design, decoration, incised texts and prayers for the dead, as well as map through the underworld, work together to facilitate their occupant’s passage to the afterlife and sustain the ka for eternity.

Thanks to careful record keeping and conservation, we are now able to reconstruct the original burial. Befitting their high status, the governor and his wife were both buried in decorated rectangular wooden coffins placed within larger coffins, all made of thick cedar of Lebanon boards. (Lady Djehutynakht had two outer coffins, but the outermost one was almost totally destroyed by robbers and left at the site by the expedition.) Only the wealthiest Egyptians of the period could afford such preparations. Coffins were the most costly items of tomb equipment and were considered vessels to transport the deceased to the afterlife. Mummified bodies were placed on their left side with the head facing the false door. In that way, through a pair of eyes painted on the inside of the coffin and in a corresponding place on its exterior, they could view their journey to the afterlife.

The Secrets of Tomb 10A also showcases Lady Djehutynakht’s decorated coffins, which, like her husband’s, were carved and painted inside, with ornamental hieroglyphs along the top, and false doors, offering lists, and Coffin Texts on the panels. However, these are less detailed and do not contain the requisite map through the underworld. In addition to her coffins, Lady Djehutynakht’ jewelry is included in the exhibition as illustrated by the exquisite blue-green faience Broad collar (about 2040–1783 BC) and a gold bracelet.

“We are thrilled to present this material for the first time. It has been a privilege to study it now that our talented conservators have restored it to its original splendor. The consummate skill of the ancient artists is revealed for all to see and enjoy,” said Rita E. Freed, John F. Cogan, Jr. and Mary L. Cornille Chair of the MFA’s Department of Art of the Ancient World, who organized the exhibition with department curators Lawrence M. Berman, Norma Jean Calderwood Senior Curator of Ancient Egyptian, Nubian, and Near Eastern Art, and Denise M. Doxey, curator of Ancient Egyptian, Nubian, and Near Eastern Art.

Djehutynakht, whose name means “(the god) Thoth is Strong,” is believed to have been a governor, or nomarch, of the district of Hermopolis in Middle Egypt who lived during the reign of one or more of three possible rulers of Dynasty 11 and 12: Mentuhotep III (2010–1998 BC), Mentuhotep IV (1998–1991 BC), or Amenemhat I (1991–1961 BC). He also held the titles of ?controller of the two thrones? and “overseer of priests.” After the collapse of the Great Pyramid age of the Old Kingdom (around 2143–2100 BC), there was no central government in Egypt. This resulted in the formation of powerful provincial centers during the First Intermediate Period (about 2100–2040 BC). The country was reunified in the Middle Kingdom, but local governors still retained power. Because Hermopolis was at the juncture of the previously warring northern and southern Egyptian kingdoms, as a high official, Djehutynakht likely played a role in the politics of the region.

His tomb is located in Deir el-Bersha, named after the nearby modern village, about 186 miles south of Cairo on the east bank of the Nile, across from the ancient site of Hermopolis. Tomb 10A was discovered in 1915 by MFA registrar Hanford Lyman Story, a member of the Harvard University-Boston Museum of Fine Arts Expedition in Egypt (1915–1947) that is known primarily for unearthing thousands of objects at Giza and amassing the largest archaeological documentary archive of any expedition there. It was led by George Reisner, called the “Father of American Egyptology,” a professor of Egyptology at Harvard who founded the expedition and later became curator of the Egyptology Department at the MFA. The material discovered at Deir el-Bersha was divided between the Boston expedition and the Egyptian government, with the entirety of the jumbled contents of Tomb 10A awarded to Boston. Because of World War I, objects were stored in Egypt for safekeeping, finally leaving for Boston in 1921. More drama followed. The cargo ship carrying them caught fire, and the crates were damaged by water. Luckily, this final assault on the contents of the Djehutynakhts’ tomb was minor.

Excavation and Scientific Research
Documentary photos in The Secrets of Tomb 10A chronicle the 1915 excavation of the necropolis at Deir el-Bersha, where archaeologists unearthed many burial shafts, largely devoid of significant finds. That changed when they blasted away massive boulders and discovered a shaft leading to Tomb 10A. The above-ground chapel of the tomb had been quarried, destroying information about the inhabitants. The shaft itself showed signs of fire and plunder, but team members continued to dig down 30 feet until they reached the bottom and found, amidst the debris, the entrance to a burial chamber. Inside, they discovered a chaotic scene with objects strewn throughout the small room by robbers in search of booty. Providing an eerie greeting for the 20th-century visitors was a linen-wrapped painted head perched on top of a coffin, appearing to observe the excavators. Propped up in the far corner was a limb-less, head-less torso. (Determining it to be of little value for the Museum, the excavators left it at the site.) Almost 95 years later, the mummy head will once again be visible in a small room in the exhibition, exactly the size of the original burial chamber.

Near the head in the same small chamber in the exhibition is a video reconstruction and supporting materials documenting the extensive scientific analyses conducted from 2005 on by neurologists and radiologists at Massachusetts General Hospital, who applied cutting-edge ultra-high resolution flat panel volume CT (computerized tomography) scanning technology, among other techniques. Improving upon earlier studies of 1984 in cooperation with Brigham and Women’s Hospital, this research has identified additional surgical procedures performed on the head during the embalming process. Also, thanks to new, highly advanced scans of the mummified head, the Cancer Research Institute of Heidelberg University made a 3-D plaster model of the skull without unwrapping it. While these new views of the head do not determine conclusively whether it is Governor Djehutynakht or his wife, Lady Djehutynakht, they shed considerable light on the mystery of why several facial bones were removed. It appears the brain—in addition to being removed through the nose, the traditional ancient Egyptian way that had not yet become common by the Djehutynakhts’ time—also was partially extracted through the base of the skull at the back of the head. The jaw was later separated from its adjacent musculature, possibly in keeping with the Opening of the Mouth ceremony, an important funerary ritual of ancient Egypt that restored the use of the mouth for the deceased to eat, drink, and breathe in the afterlife. Tests on DNA samples from the head are currently underway in the continued attempt to determine which of the Djehutynakhts resides at the MFA.

Models and Masterworks
Although the tomb robbers stole virtually everything made of gold or semi-precious stone, they left behind treasures of another kind—masterworks of Egyptian art. One of the most famous examples is the Procession of offering bearers (c. 2040–1926 BC), a wooden model about 26 inches long that was among the more than 100 found scattered throughout Tomb 10A. The delicacy of its carving and the detail of its painting make it the finest of its kind ever discovered in Egypt. The procession consists of a priest carrying a ceremonial wine jar and incense burner for use in the burial rites, followed by two women with offerings of food and drink, and a third bringing items for the governor’s personal care. The vignette represents all that was essential to sustain the ka of Djehutynakht in the afterlife. About three dozen other models represent daily activities on a grand estate, including farm work and individual shops for carpenters, weavers, brick-makers, bakers, and brewers. Egyptians believed these miniaturized workers would come to life and serve their owners in the afterlife, just as a nomarch’s personnel did during his time on earth. Models of tools and weapons were discovered as well.

Just as water-born transportation on the Nile was the primary means of journeying long distances in life, travel by boat was necessary for navigating the hereafter. The Djehutynakhts included in their tomb a flotilla of nearly 60 model boats outfitted for pleasure, defensive, utilitarian and funerary purposes. When archeologists made their discovery, they found that the boats, crews, and assorted parts were roughly strewn about the tomb. Thanks to the help of five conservators (including one from the Cairo Museum), who spent approximately 10,000 total hours on the project, thousands of pieces were sorted, matched, and reattached to their corresponding models, most of which are now shown fully assembled in the exhibition for the first time in four millenia.

Middle Kingdom Sculpture
Complementing objects found in Tomb 10A are examples of Middle Kingdom sculpture, decorative arts, and funerary goods from other sites illustrating the grand lifestyle enjoyed by the privileged in the Middle Kingdom. These include sculptures of rulers and high officials of Djehutynakht’s time from the Museum’s own collection, such as The Statue of Lady Sennuwy (Dynasty 12, about 1971–1926 BC), one of the great masterpieces of the early 12th dynasty. This life-size granodiorite depiction of the wife of a powerful provincial governor, Djefaihapi of Asyut, was discovered by Reisner in Nubia (now present-day Sudan). Also featured is Osiride Statue of King Mentuhotep III, re-inscribed for King Merenptah (Dynasty 11, about 2010–1998 BC), a commanding sandstone representation of the king in the guise of Osiris.

Although Reisner hoped that excavations at Deir el-Bersha would continue after the 1915 discoveries, work was halted until the 1990s, when a joint survey was undertaken by the MFA, the University of Pennsylvania, and Leiden University in the Netherlands. Today, the project continues under the leadership of Professor Harco Willems of Katholieke University of Leuven, Belgium, and new finds are still being made.

To enhance the appreciation of The Secrets of Tomb 10A, a variety of special programs will be offered at the Museum, including a lecture, an eight-part course, gallery talks, an artist demonstration, and family activities. In addition, the MFA’s website will include a fun interactive section highlighting specific aspects of the exhibition and opportunities for further exploration:

•The Tomb—Learn about the unearthing of artifacts from 2000 BC, which includes excerpts from the 1915 excavation diaries.

•The Secrets—Dig deeper into ancient mysteries and get answers from the MFA’s panel of experts.

•The Mummy—Examine the results of tests performed on the mummified head as presented in a video featuring Massachusetts General Hospital doctors Paul Chapman and Rajiv Gupta.

•The Afterlife—Discover how ancient Egyptians viewed life and death in the Middle Kingdom and listen to a video of curator Lawrence Berman talking about mysterious spells used to protect the dead in the afterlife.

•Just for Kids!—Try fun activities at home and in the gallery, listen to samples from the family audio guide, and explore objects in the exhibition.

The MFA website also offers a link to its Giza Archives website, which details the Museum’s involvement in expeditions that unearthed important treasures from Egypt’s past. (The MFA remains actively involved in documenting the work of the original expedition to Egypt as organizer of the Giza Archives Project, which it launched in 2000 to record all information from world sources about discoveries at that site.)

Aspiring archaeologists can learn more about Egypt by visiting the Museum, which has one of the world’s greatest collections of Egyptian art. Galleries feature Egyptian Funerary Arts, which includes the MFA’s collection of mummies; the Old Kingdom; Egyptian and Nubian; New Kingdom; and Late Period Egyptian. Plans also are underway for the addition of a Middle Kingdom gallery, which will be a highlight of the new George D. and Margo Behrakis Art of the Ancient World Wing.